Johann Sebastian Bach, Preludes, Fantasies & Fugues: Peter Sykes, clavichord
Raven OAR-959

From Clavichord International, Volume 19, number 2, November 2015

J. S. Bach remains the most recorded composer on clavichord, understandably. I tend to measure every new addition to the JSB discography by the following criteria: Are we being presented with seldom-recorded or indeed previously unrecorded material, is the player worth listening to and – important in the clavichord world – is the instrument used of interest and relevance? Technical matters such as recording quality also play a part, of course. I am happy to write that the disc before me ticks all the right boxes.

With the exception of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (BWV 903), the recorded pieces are not universally well known. The Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998), inscribed in the manuscript “pour la luth ò cembal,” and thought to be for the Lautenwerk, has in the clavichord its best reproductive vehicle at the present time; lute harpsichords are still scarce, the piece is technically extremely difficult on the lute, and does not, in my opinion, come off best on the harpsichord. It makes an arresting opening to this disc, and Sykes’s choice of tempi is excellent for all three movements. The improvisational character of the Prelude is well characterized by a healthy degree of rhythmic freedom and a lot of musicality.

A disc devoted to only preludes, fantasies and fugues might run the risk, on paper anyway, of being labeled as monoculture, but here there is much variety in the program presented. The Fantasy on a Rondo (BWV 918) is more of an extended invention than a fantasy in the accepted sense and, as such, contrasts well with the previous piece, both in texture and range: BWV 998 is pitched low, not venturing above e-flat2. The Preludium and Fughetta (BWV 902) follow, with some well-articulated fast runs in the second half of the prelude. Again, this a piece well-suited to the clavichord. The Prelude and Fugue after Albinoni (BWV 923/951) has a section of unrealized chords for arpeggiation, which Sykes brings off extremely well. How to present a fugue subject is of vital importance to the success of the pieces as a whole, and Sykes’s rendition of the fugue opening in the A minor Fantasy and Fugue (BWV 904) was for me a highlight of the recording.

The clavichord used is the original 1789 Schiedmayer, loaned for the recording by Allan Winkler. It sounds extremely good; I would go so far as to say that this disc is one of the best recordings I have heard on an original clavichord; the sound is alive, and there is not a hint of mechanical noise. - Paul Simmonds